One of the most unenviable tasks when it comes to screenwriting has to be the poor sap strapped with writing yet another rise to stardom/ fall from grace rock band movie. The likes of Rock Star, The Runaways, Sid And Nancy, That Thing You Do, Bandits, and Garage Days all hit the similar notes of each other in one way or another. Therefore, to make such an oft-told tale seem fresh, an original spin on the material is in order. Enter Ash Avildsen, writer, and director of American Satan, who mixes in supernatural elements to invigorate a formulaic genre.
Johnny (Andy Biersack), Vic (Booboo Stewart), Dylan (Sebastian Gregory), Ricky (John Bradley), and Leo (Ben Bruce) all relocate to Los Angeles to pursue their dream of music superstardom together as The Relentless. Johnny and Vic moved from the same US town, leaving Johnny’s mom Kat (Denise Richards) and girlfriend Gretchen (Olivia Culpo), both of whom hope to be able to meet the band on the road at various points. The other three moved from the UK, and they all meet up with bassist Lily (Jesse Sullivan). After impressing a few agents with their demo, they get a gig at the Whiskey bar in eight weeks. While out trying to sell tickets, a homeless man gets in their face and says a few cryptic lines that confuse the friends.
The sell a decent number of tickets and get a few smaller gigs along the way. The night of the Whiskey performance, Jesse’s ex, Damien (Drake Bell), lies about a surprise Metallic show at a different venue, solely to ensure nobody shows up to see The Relentless play. After taking their frustrations out, they load their gear up and walk over to the hopping venue across the street. A man in a nice car and expensive clothes rolls up and offers to buy them a drink. Mr. Capricorn (Malcolm McDowell) turns out to be the same nasty homeless man from a few weeks ago. He makes them an offer- perform a human sacrifice, and he will make them rock n roll legends. Johnny initially refuses, but after Damien is a dick to him, he goes along with the plan. They knock Damien out and tie him up in the van, then set the van on fire.
“…perform a human sacrifice, and he will make them rock n roll legends.”
The next morning, Elias (Mark Boone Junior), the head of Akkadian Records, calls Vic to inform him that he listened to their demo and liked it. The band meets him and signs a record contract. Afterward, they are discussing album names, and Johnny suggests ‘American Satan,’ which everyone agrees is perfect. They then go on tour as the opening act for a bigger band already on tour. As the fame starts going to their head, and the groupies throw themselves at the band, their drug use gets worse. Can the band make it through the other side or will this be their first and only tour? Not to mention, Mr. Capricorn shows up periodically to demand another sacrifice or make some other demand, which begins to weigh on everyone’s conscience.
Avildsen co-wrote American Satan with Matty Beckerman, and there’s one issue present in this deal with the devil, rock n roll fable. Early on, Kat is diagnosed with cancer. This is one of the major motivating factors for Johnny agreeing to the deal to start with, as the money is going to help her pay for treatments. But, there is only one scene between them before he heads to LA and that is simply not enough. It is a decent scene to be sure, but adding another sequence, perhaps with Gretchen, Kat, and Johnny out for a goodbye dinner would have strengthened their bond. As it stands, how close they are isn’t clear from the outset.
Aside from that, the dialogue is realistic, with weight given to the choices made by the band members. Ricky winds up running away before Damien is killed because he gets too overwhelmed. He comes back after the contract with Elias is signed. The bandmates are well rounded and engaging, each with a distinct personality, whose wants and needs show throughout their interactions with fans, each other, and Mr. Capricorn. It is with this supernatural character that a lot of the originality comes in. Take that away, and a decent, but predictable, cautionary tale of fame gone too far exists. But adding in this element adds a certain unpredictable quality, as the characters never know what he’ll ask for next, nor what his endgame is, and that invests the audience so much more than they would be otherwise.
“…their songs are rocking, and it is easy to see why they would gain traction as they do…”
As a director, Avildsen brings a kinetic energy to American Satan that is hypnotic. The opening credit sequence is intercut with The Relentless playing a show, the credits of the crew and cast members, and quotes from musical legends such as David Bowie and Neil Young discussing how rock consumes your soul. It is a wonderful way to introduce the band’s music, the themes of the movie, and editing style early on. The cinematography by Andrew Strahorn is jaw-dropping, with every scene dripping with atmosphere and gorgeous lighting.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Black Veil Brides frontman Biersack proving to be an incredible leading man. He imbues Johnny with a quiet resourcefulness that gives every line he speaks a true purpose. Plus, he can sing his heart out and gives the various songs his absolute all. Stewart has never been this good in anything that I have seen, and as one of the more level-headed people in the movie, he brings a lot of heart to the role. McDowell is terrific fun in a role that lets him go from quiet to over the top in the same sentence, his obvious enjoyment of the part is infectious. Sullivan as Lily is electrifying. She goes against the grain and plays the role rather quiet, even when there are moments that a different actor would have gone big during. This choice makes all the difference, as Lily is sympathetic at all points, even when getting Johnny addicted to heroin. Richards role is limited, but she is terrific and sweet in it. An extended cameo by Bill Goldberg is fantastic and one or two scenes feature Patrick Muldoon, whom it is always a pleasure to see.
As a movie about a band, music is critical to American Satan succeeding. The score is composed by Korn frontman Jonathan Davis and is excellent. The soundtrack features talents such as In This Moment, Meg Myers, Deftones, and The Pretty Reckless, plus plenty of other fan-favorite alternative and metal bands! Their songs are used to great effect throughout the movie. But of course, if The Relentless weren’t any good, then nothing about the film would work. Thankfully their songs are rocking, and it is easy to see why they would gain traction as they do, even with just their demo.
American Satan doesn’t put enough time toward one of the most crucial relationships in the movie for it to work. But the acting is excellent, the directing is stylized and energetic, the characters are interesting, the ending is remarkable, and the soundtrack is incredible!
American Satan (2018) Directed by Ash Avildsen. Written by Ash Avildsen, Matty Beckerman. Starring Andy Biersack, Booboo Stewart, Malcolm McDowell, John Bradley, Ben Bruce, Jesse Sullivan, Sebastian Gregory, Mark Boone Junior.